Things I Learned During My Facebook Vacation

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Earlier this spring was the beginning of Lent, a season which we Catholics mark (in theory) by a renewed focus on prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  Another longstanding practice is to give something up.  Giving up chocolate or beer is a nice way to make some changes to your life in a way that shifts your focus away from that loud, needy self, and toward higher purposes, but I have tried to go a little more radical.

I have given up other things in the past, like all alchol, sweets of all kinds, between-meal snacks and some other things.  But this year I went nuclear and gave up Facebook.  And in addition to some spiritual benefits, I learned a few things.

When I made the decision to give up Facebook, I was uncertain whether I could really do it.  I was spending way too much time scrolling through my newsfeed.  My inner compulsive feared missing some interesting thing posted by those in my circle of friends.  A trip, a family milestone or an interesting article were things I was reluctant to miss out on.

One of my great personal weaknesses is keeping in touch with those I know.  There are so many people I should visit, call, invite over or meet for a beer.  But I just don’t.  Is it because I am an introvert?  Because I have too much to do in my daily life and allow these demands on my time to interfere with friendships?  Because I am afraid that some of these friends are too busy to make time for me?  Probably all of the above.  Facebook has been a great thing for me in this regard, a way to stay connected to people I don’t get to see very often.

But on Ash Wednesday I pulled the plug.  Cold turkey.  I am an ex smoker, so I know all about cold turkey and it is not fun at all.  After a few days of withdrawal, I settled in and found other things to occupy my time.  So what did I learn?

First, FB is no longer a social network but a platform to deliver news and advertising.  From its inception, Facebook has billed itself as a “social network”.  It has developed as THE place to connect with friends and family.  In recent years, however, it has morphed into something else.  While I was tuning in to keep up on what those I know and (sometimes) love were doing in their lives, I was getting a higher and higher concentration of news stories and targeted advertisements.  That volume of stuff was stealing time from me, time that I was trying to devote to staying connected with those I know.

Second, a very small subset of my FB friends were contributing to the shrill and grating way in which we do political discourse these days.  Although I am a conservative, I consider it an obligation to read well-reasoned and well-written articles which support points of view that are different from my own.  After all, how can I understand an issue if I do not consider what others have to say about it?

Sources such as these, however, do not seem to get a lot of exposure on FB.  Instead, we get snarky memes and sensational headlines that tout clickbait articles like “You Won’t Believe Hillary Clinton’s Reaction To Bill’s Love Child” or “How Donald Trump Has . . . ” (It doesn’t matter, you can insert just about anything here and it would illustrate my point.)  I don’t want to read this stuff.  It does not try to persuade, but is instead only there to light the torches of the angry villagers before they head out to storm the castle during the lightning storm.  Or shoot someone on a baseball diamond.  I learned that I didn’t miss this stuff at all.

Third, I learned how a sense of calm settled over me when I no longer felt that inner drive to “keep up” with the newsfeed.  Before, I would keep scrolling and scrolling until I got back to what I had seen on my last FB dive.  Really, do they have to keep messing with the order of posts?  More than many, I have a need to be complete.  When I read something, I want to read all of it.  But when I released myself from that compulsion to finish what I started and to do a complete job of it (even on something as unnecessary as keeping up with a FB newsfeed) my level of serenity improved.  I was calm.

As family things settled down later in the day on Easter Sunday, I thought about my Facebook usage.  I actually considered not going back.  But in the end, I decided to go back, but with some different attitudes.

One is that I seem to have broken through my previously obsessive need to “keep up”.  Sometimes I scroll through my newsfeed and sometimes (more often) I don’t.  I am sure I miss things, but you know what?  It’s OK.

I have also resisted getting drawn into contentious topics.  Facebook is a terrible forum for debating serious issues.  FB does not allow the time or space to really develop thoughts or arguments, and it certainly does not encourage the kind of attention span that would lead someone to read through a 600 word comment.  If the issue and the forum is as likely to lead to a cheap, snarky shot as to a reasonable response, best to just keep walking.  Just because you can say something doesn’t mean that it is a good idea.

Finally, I reminded myself that there is some good stuff there too.  I love hearing from distant family and from old friends, and I missed these parts a lot.  Enough, as it turned out, to tip the balance towards re-engaging with The Monster.

I do not flatter myself by supposing that Mark Zuckerberg is among my readers.  But if he were, I would suggest that there was a tradeoff to be made between maintaining the kind of “social network” that he invented and becoming rich from it.  That tradeoff was made, and Mr. Z is a fabulously wealthy man.  He should not, however, be surprised if his choice results in more and more of us deciding that what he built is something that we are better off without.

After spending six weeks away from Facebook to think about my life and what part Facebook deserves to play in it, I decided that Facebook’s claim on my time is a lot more tenuous than I would have believed a few months ago.  And I don’t think I am alone.

 

24 thoughts on “Things I Learned During My Facebook Vacation

  1. Preach it, Mr. Cavanaugh.

    Having experienced FB recidivism (I abandoned my original account in 2013, only to start a new one in 2015), you are quite correct it can be a time suck. Nasty (and ill-informed) political diatribes, click-bait articles, crap shared repeatedly – like you, I only maintain a presence to keep in touch with a few along with an occasional brag or observation.

    Perhaps you might enjoy a game I’ve started….When on FB, it’s typically on my home computer and my wife is logged on. Before I log her out, I look in the right hand column to see how long it’s been since various people were on, seeking my name. Then, the challenge is “how high can I go?” with a personal best of five days.

    With the transformation of content on FB, I can envision it being the Blackberry of social media in eight to twelve years. And we all know what happened to Blackberry.

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    • The Millenials in my world who were the backbone of FB 10 years ago have largely abandoned it to we old codgers. If MySpace wants to make a comeback, it might have a shot if it tried to become what FB used to be. But there’s no money in it, so don’t hold your breath.

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  2. I am possibly even worse at staying in contact as I have never had a facebook account. There are more and more groups using it as their main method of sharing info, so I may have to cave in one of these days.

    This does remind me, if you would like to send me one of those old fashioned emails 😉 I have some pictures from Detroit to share, and would love to see any of yours.

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    • My middle son works for a small ad agency and manages social media for some of their clients. He says that after being on those platforms for others all day he has almost completely unplugged in his personal life.
      Yes, I will shoot you an email.

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  3. Agree 💯 %. Although I’ve still resisted the urge to go back. One interesting thing I found is that with my closest family and friends we actually connect one on one now. Since Facebook I never even realized that we had stopped doing that! Great writing thanks!

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  4. Glad you enjoyed your vacation and came back with a new tack to deal with FB.
    I figure FB is like Doritos. I can stop my self from buying them but once they’re in the house I am under their power. So I just never buy Doritos or set up a FB account.
    I go get some FB filtering through Mrs DougD, so I get to see things that are particularly interesting but she also has noticed the signal to noise ratio is getting worse.
    Politics isn’t such a problem here but what really gets my wife (Nurse Practitioner) riled is the Anti-Vaxxers, my brother’s wife is one of them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love the Doritos analogy, and completely understand this. Do they sell Bugles in Canada? Same thing with me on those.

      That is a challenge, seeing people you like/love in real life who use FB to loudly proclaim views you find distasteful.

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  5. Yes they are, but Bugles never really did it for me. As I recall they are more fun to play with than eat. Loudly proclaimed views are particularly distasteful in Canada because we’re so darn polite! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. In the interest of full disclosure, Mr. Cavanaugh was well supplied with brilliant comedic material that also happened to appear on Facebook.

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    • Hahaha, indeed I was. When I started getting your emails, I wondered if I was cheating, but decided that 1) I hadn’t asked for it and 2) they were such fun to read, I just went with it. Thank you kind sir for your thoughtfulness in keeping me in your fabulously fun orbit.

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  7. I’ve struggled to find the right Facebook balance over the years. You’re right that it has its fair share of drawbacks and it’s easy to get obsessive with it. On the other hand, it’s been legitimately good for keeping in touch with people who I want to stay in touch with. Lately I’ve been trying to limit my use with it by only being on it for a few minutes at a time and then logging out, so that I’m not on it for hours on end or constantly checking back on it. I’ve had some success. At varying points I’ve thought about getting rid of it all together, and that may wind up coming to pass at some point, but for now I’m committed to keeping it around and trying my best to limit it.

    And agreed on the point about Facebook being bad for arguments. One too many frustrating socio-political discussions with folks with less than stellar online personalities did that for me; although, unfortunately, I do have to admit my own petulance, willful ignorance, and irascibility in a number of heated online arguments. These days I avoid it all together, and I back off the minute a conversation goes south. Concomitantly, I essentially post nothing in the way of politics on my profile anymore. It’s been worth it in order to have a sense of peace online.

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  8. Have to agree, and need to try this sometime. The “suggested posts” which of course are barely-disguised ads to circumvent great add-ons like ad block plus are getting ridiculous. Lately I have been getting suggested posts for vegetarian buffets, home improvement and alcohol/drug abatement services. Oh, and Toyota, which is particularly insulting. It’s like they don’t even care what you like or don’t like, or would never buy in one hundred years. I’ve gone offline for days at a time, and even temporarily deactivated my account right after the election. But I keep coming back. The secret is to stay off the main news feed and stick to the groups you enjoy, or individual friend’s page. Of course in a few years we’ll probably see ads on friend’s pages and in the groups too, at which point I’ll probably say adios!

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    • I have not tried hopping between groups and individual pages, that seems to eliminate the chance of hearing from those who are only active occasionally but have something to say today. And yeah, sometimes the “targeted” ads are anything but.

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  9. I unplugged for a month two years ago and was as surprised as you were to discover how much less “cluttered” my life and mind felt. But like you I returned, in my case because I have a fair number of friends in other countries and it’s difficult to keep up with them otherwise. The key for me has been to log in more mindfully, and with a time limit. I’ll be curious to hear how YOUR experience continues to evolve now that you’ve done the “conscious uncoupling.”

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    • I don’t spend as much time on the newsfeed as before, but with my phone always logged in, I am constantly subject to “notifications”. Perhaps I should set time limits as you have and actually log out. Something to think about.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Honestly, between CC and a couple of other very collegial gearhead forums that I read (aka am addicted to), I feel those are my real social media. I actually find FB only useful to keep up with close family and friends. And when I write that, it sounds sad. Maybe time to try an abstention.

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    • Well, if family and close friends is the whole circle, it doesn’t sound bad. I made a mistake early on by not being selective enough in who gets admitted to the circle. Not good for the signal to noise ratio.

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